I recently had an experience that seems pretty common this summer: sitting in an airport during a flight delay, wondering when - or if - I’d reach my destination. This was my first post-pandemic business trip for one of our court clients. After a couple hours, it was clear that hundreds of my fellow travelers shared the same feeling of uncertainty. In much the same way, jurors, litigants, and members of the public returning to courthouses for the first time since before 2020 may experience uncertainty when things look and feel different than they remember.
For example, although many states and localities are trying to get back to “normal,” some courts (including the one I visited after my flight finally departed over four hours late) remain very conscientious about public health measures. In this particular courthouse, seats in the jury assembly area and courtroom jury boxes, as well as at counsel tables, are placed at least six feet apart. There is a maximum recommended passenger capacity in all elevators, a COVID testing station can be found in the lobby, and masks are required throughout the courthouse. These and other court policies directly affect the capacity and layout of certain court spaces.
Courtroom using gallery as a jury box with social distancing
After a couple days on this particular trip, I realized that the “Courthouse of the Future” is just starting to come into focus. Planners and architects have begun to digest post-pandemic trends in space utilization, both through data analysis and first-hand observation. We are still in the early stages of what could be a significant long-term transition affecting numerous court spaces, including courtrooms, staff areas, public counters, and detention cells. This blog focuses on my initial observations regarding courtrooms in particular.
Are Remote Proceedings Here to Stay?
During the pandemic, many courts transitioned to remote proceedings, as courthouse access was temporarily restricted or even non-existent. Motion hearings, arraignments, oral arguments, and perhaps even some trials were conducted via videoconference, with the various parties in different locations and linked only electronically. This of course led to some memorable Internet moments, including the now-classic “I’m Not a Cat” thanks to a lawyer’s unfortunate interaction with a Zoom filter.
As restrictions have generally eased, judges and court staff are spending more time in courthouses and much court business is once again being conducted in person. However, the pandemic demonstrated that some proceedings can be handled remotely. In fact, advantages and efficiencies can be gained in terms of scheduling, travel costs, time, and space usage. The challenge for judges and court managers is sorting out which proceedings can be conducted remotely, and which need to be held in person.
When is Courtroom Screen Time OK?
There is a clear consensus that jury trials need to be conducted in person. Counsel needs to be able to read non-verbal cues and body language during jury selection. Judges and jurors require the same ability to observe witnesses during questioning. Similarly, oral arguments in appellate and Supreme courts require interpersonal connections. Judges and justices seek clarity from counsel on a wide range of procedural and Constitutional questions, sometimes in time-limited sessions with rapid verbal exchanges.
However, other proceedings seem well-suited to being held remotely. Some involve relatively quick, surface-level interactions between the judge and a large number of individuals. Routine traffic dockets and misdemeanor initial appearance dockets involving non-detained defendants fit this description. These dockets, if held remotely, could help reduce courthouse foot traffic and the associated need for large courtrooms to accommodate so many people at one time.
Arraignments of detained defendants could also be handled remotely with the right technology in the associated jails. When held in person, mass arraignments are often held in a full courtroom, with each defendant appearing briefly before the judge and then returning to their seat. A remote arraignment eliminates the need for deputies to transport detainees between the jail and courthouse and to escort them between the cellblock and courtroom. Considering that an arraignment is often a brief formality, the savings of time and transport costs, and possibly reduced security risk, may be worthwhile for a court. Of course, it is up to each court to ensure that the quality of interaction between the judge, counsel, and defendant is upheld if arraignments are held remotely.
Data Analysis Informs Space Decisions
Planning and design teams will need to work with courts to determine which proceedings should remain remote for the long term. This process can be informed by analyzing caseload trends and space usage data, especially those of the pandemic. One current court client provided us with data that we used to estimate the extent of courtroom use and the frequency of remote hearings for various case and proceeding types. This analysis, paired with first-hand qualitative feedback from stakeholders and user groups, will help our design team recommend the appropriate mix of larger courtrooms and smaller video hearing rooms to include in the program of requirements for the project.
Analytics are critical in planning courtroom space
I’m excited to continue working with judges, court managers, and architects to plan well-functioning space as the Courthouse of the Future takes shape. I just hope that, in the process, I don’t wind up spending any nights in the Airport of the Future!